/ Food & Drink, Health

Is organic food actually better for you?

A Stanford University study has suggested that there’s no robust evidence to support the idea that eating organic is healthier than non-organic food. Is eating organic better for you – or just clever marketing?

Organic. The very word makes me feel more nourished and wholesome.

I’m a Londoner – I ingest enough toxins from my daily commute. I don’t need more from my food. But organic does burn a bigger hole in my food shopping fund. Is it worth paying a premium to go organic?

Organic food and you

Stanford Uni’s research looked at 240 studies of nutrient levels in food and nutrition levels in humans, and found no robust evidence to suggest that organic food is nutritionally better for you than food that has been conventionally produced.

This backs up the findings of an independent 2009 report commissioned by the Food Standards Agency which took 50 years of studies into consideration and found there to be no important differences in nutritional value between the two. Even our own Gardening team’s small-scale trial found that the veg they grew non-organically tasted better, had more nutrients and often higher yields.

Yet, not all reports back up Stanford Uni’s findings. The US watchdog Consumer Reports questions the media’s coverage of the research, pointing out its ‘severe limitations’. For example, some of the studies Stanford Uni looked at did find nutritional benefits to eating organic.

Organic food and the environment

Advocates of organic food argue that it’s not all about whether the food is nutritionally better for you. There’s the question of exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, which sound like things you’d want to avoid when you’re eating your five-a-day.

Stanford Uni’s review did actually find that organic food is 30% less likely to include pesticides, but whether exposure to these agro-chemical residues make a difference to how healthy you are is another question.

There’s also the environment to think about. In our Convo on organic gardening, Emma said:

‘We cannot carry on poisoning the land and watercourses with pesticides and destroying every living creature in the garden just to deal with a few pest species. Organic gardening is about living in balance with nature and that for me is the most important aspect of it.’

Another review, this time by Oxford Uni, found that although organic farms produced less pollution by land area, per unit of food they produced more than their non-organic counterparts. Still, the organic farms did have better soil and were home to more species.

Is organic always the answer?

These recent studies have reignited interesting questions that are at the heart of eating organic – is the impact on the environment as significant as you think it is? Is it really healthier than non-organic food?

Personally, I think there other ways to guarantee your food is healthy and good for the environment. Growing your own or buying local produce, seems more important to me than buying organic that’s shipped in from afar. Fairtrade, which helps towards sustainability and poverty alleviation, is also the label I tend to look out for more.

But perhaps that’s by the by? Are you an organic advocate or sitting on the farming fence?

Comments
Profile photo of redkite
Member

I eat organic food when I can as it means I am not taking in any pesticides, fungicides or other nasties.
That aside I don’t think non-organic food is any different.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Great theory, red kite, but are you aware that aflatoxin levels can be substantially higher in organic food containing cereals? These are mycotoxins produced by moulds, and can cause organ damage and cancer. This is fairly well known but producers choose only to mention only the benefits of organic foods.

Member
RAZOR says:
25 February 2015

Hey mate I think ur rite dude

Profile photo of skeptictank
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The nutritional value of the food is only one dimension of the organic objective. The different pest control and fertiliser methods in organic farming makes it less toxic to the environment. The animal husbandry practised in the production of meat products is more humane and less intense than the in rest of the farming industry.
IMO these reasons are sufficient in themselves to justify organic food.

Profile photo of richard
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Agree with the previous two posters – I eat organic whenever possible NOT because of the taste – but because it is better for the planet. Intensive farming is not the way to go in any way shape or form.

Profile photo of mose
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It’s all very well to say intensive farming is not the way to go but maybe you have not noticed that the world population has doubled in the last 50 years. It’s all very well for people in affluent areas and countries to fart about with organic this and organic that but the whole reason, say in this country that we have such intensive rearing of animals and growing of crops is that there are 50+ million people on this little island.
I live out in Lincolnshire and see with my own eyes how food is grown. Eating fresh fruit and veg straight from the tree/plant is fantastic and the taste is superior (I have a small cottage style garden in my garden) but if everyone did this you wouldn’t have a countryside. I don’t think people realise the percentage of food that is airshipped in. We have Organic food shipped from Africa for instance. A continent that has millions dying of malnutrition is shipping organic this and that over, using a huge amount of fuel in the process just so that Tarquin in Islington gets his ‘organic’ out of season veg. Now what is ‘ethical’.
Another thing about organic fruit and veg is that, in my experience it just doesn’t have the shelf life of non organic. My veg garden gives me loads of lovely (organic) veg but in no way does the food remain in tip top condition for as long as supermarket veg does. Ever tried to grow cabbages ‘organically’? Everything in existence wants to eat it! No wonder they spray plants.
Personally I’m all for GM (so long as it’s deemed safe). Anything that can increase the yield in a given area. Most farmers get a pittance from supermarkets for their produce. A cabbage at £1.25 will be bought for about 2-5p and if the item isn’t selling the supermarket will send the whole lot back to the farmer stating some problem. No wonder farmers have to find ways to increase yield. Wonder why there aren’t any small farms left? It’s uneconomical.

If anyone is harping on about non organic farming harming the planet, any you have kids?… Population if anything is the killer of the planet, not intensive farming.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I broadly agree with what you say, mose, though with GM crops we need to think about environmental issues as well as human safety.

I completely agree about the issue of population growth, but any efforts to tackle this in the western world would be seen as an infringement of personal freedom. Many of the issues we discuss on Which? Conversation would be of far less importance if the UK population was half the present number, and most of us pay little attention to what is happening elsewhere in the world.

It is about time we had some honest and balanced information about organic and non-organic produce.

Profile photo of mose
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The environmental issue, yes, goes without saying.. No one wants to live in a toxic environment (thats why I moved out of London… hic! :-))

As for population, i don’t see it as an infringement on personal freedom to limit it, I just see it as common sense. It creates food shortages, political tension, etc. In the past we had war and disease to level things out, now what do we have. There are riots each year worldwide because production cannot keep up with demand. We are a rich nation. I doubt anyone needs to starve in this country but worldwide there is a real problem. Poor nations growing cash crops instead of staples to pay off their debts to the west (and starving in the process). So… when someone with 2 or 3 kids goes on about organic being better for the planet what they are really saying is I’m alright jack….

Member

What do you think is done here in this country over the vast majority of our “natural landscape”?

What you buy to ease your conscience will have no effect on the way most foods are currently produced. So coupled with the fact that the produce actually doesn’t taste better and is no less healthy for you, what does it matter?

Taking the moral high ground is more important to some people than others so just eat whatever you can afford or like, the world will keep on turning and food will continue to be mass produced because there will always be a demand for it.

Member

Not surprised. I seem to recall another report published a few years ago about the amount of non-organic food that was being sold as organic and the near impossibility of distinguishing between the two.

Member
Alizarin says:
11 September 2012

I don’t believe it’s ever been a claim that organically produced food has extra nutrients. This is about choice. The whole point of organic is that it is produced on soil that is chemical and pesticide-free or nearly so. Similarly, animals are raised in a less intensive environment, and if you have never tasted organic pork gammon, you are in for a treat.

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boringsceptic says:
11 September 2012

Organic food is better for your health if you believe it is better for your health. This is because all organic food contains lots of “placebo”, which unfortunately is only effective on the credulous.

Member
Vic Shorrocks says:
12 September 2012

Absence of Evidence for Health Benefits of Organic Food
It should never be forgotten that Eve Balfour and friends who founded the Soil Association in the 1940s had been taken in by the claims coming out of India (in the 1920-1930 period) of the health benefits shown by animals consuming crops grown organically i.e.fertilised only with compost (foot and mouth and rinderpest was prevented despite physical contact of the animals). At the same time mycorrhiza had been discovered which it was thought provided the physical route by which the health-promoting factors in the compost passed directly to the roots of the crop.
As a result Balfour wrote (1943) her classic and highly influential book entitled “The Living Soil, Evidence of the importance to human health of soil vitality, with special reference to national planning” and started a whole farm experiment at Haughley to show that crop and animal production and health was better using organic farming, and by extrapolation the health of the nation could be improved. The experiment ran for 22 years (up to 1969) during which time soil fertility and crop and animal production declined and there were no health beneifts Not surprisingly the Soil Association were not prepared to continue paying for the experiment and stopped it. Balfour updated her book in 1975 removing any mention of health entitling the revised edition “The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment).
So the Soil Association have known for over 50 years from their own experiment that organic farming confers no health benefits to animals and by implication to man. Attempts to find fundamental differences between organic and traditionally grown crops have consistently failed.
Since then the organic lobby has had to find other ways of attracting support, including being anti pesticides.
But that is another story… just remember one thing which is that in one to two cups of coffee (e.g in one day) you consume more harmful chemicals (natural pesticides) than the man-made pesticides you consume on one year eating fruit and vegetables.. .

Member
Susie B says:
13 September 2012

Hi Everyone,

It’s a very interesting debate but I do feel that I need more information. Vic, how do you know why the Soil Association stopped the experiment? Have they admitted their reasons? Was it just because 22 years is a long time for an experiment to run? And where does the stastic on the coffee come from? I would be really interested to find out more about that – I buy organic when I can but if it’s not worth it, then I would really like to know. I do it more because I don’t like the idea of too many pesticides, rather than taste – oh no, organic produce can taste pretty ropey! Especially Tesco’s organic tomatoes!
A farmer I was speaking to says that actually the difference in organic and non organic can mean using 23 different chemicals, instead of 34 – hmmmmm.

Member
Vic Shorrocks says:
14 September 2012

Susie

I know about the Haughley experiment (the 22 years and the reasons for
stopping) from what Eve Balfour subsequently wrote. She was an honest person
who would I believe be turning in her grave if she knew what had been
claimed after she died.
She told a European organic conference in the mid 1970s about the results
when she said the most valuable thing they did in the 22 years of the
experiment was to have their soils analysed very frequently (I think
possibly monthly) rather than annually. If you are interested and I can find
it (?on an old computer) I could send you a copy of the history of the
organic movement in the UK which I wrote a good few years ago.

For the data on pesticides natural and man-made in food and coffee you will
need to follow up the work of Bruce Ames and Gold in California in the
1990s.

I am a keen gardener and make my own compost to incorporate into my clay
soil to improve the physical properties but to provide nutrients I apply
man-made fertiliser. As the work at Rothamsted has shown in an experiment
started around the 1850s crop yields can be maintained by applying manure
alone but massive (several tons per acre) are required.

So organic matter, compost and manure is good to improve the water holding
capacity of light soils and to make heavy soils more workable and friable
but it is not sufficient unless huge amounts are applied . On a global scale
the biological fixation of nitrogen (by legumes and free-living soil
bacteria) is only sufficient to support a world population of around 3
billlion (a recent 400 author EU report). This means a) organic farming can
at best only keep half the world’s population alive and b) that on average
half the protein in our body contains nitrogen fixed by man in fertiliser
factories. To claim organic farming is sustainable is thus daft.

Just in case you are interested you may have heard about the work starting
at the John Innes in Norfolk (financed by the Gate Foundation) where they
hope to be able, by genetic modification, to induce cereals to grow root
nodules that will be able to fix atmospheric nitrogen and so reduce the need
for fertiliser nitrogen. If successful this could change the worldwide
nitrogen situation dramatically. It needs our support not the
evidence-lacking vilification of GM we hear in the UK.

Finally … I have no complaints about people wasting their money on organic
food that is their look out what makes me very cross are the lies that are
spread by the organic movements to get people to support them.

Vic

Profile photo of mose
Member

exactly Vic, re the population needing to be fed. Interesting about the nitro fixing plants. Assume they work like beans nitro nodules.

I too grow veg on my small plot. I use homegrown compost from garden and kitchen waste and bought in chicken s**t pellets so i don’t know if it’s organic or not. I don’t care really. I realise I am in a privileged position though.

I’ve no probs people wanting to eat a more natural product but i do have a problem when people think they are doing the planet a favour. It’s very easy to sit in a nice house, in a nice part of town and moralise about whats best for all but the average human being may not have your resources or wealth.

Profile photo of loonywood
Member

Some years ago I was unable to eat broccolli without a bad stomach,then I read that if you can’t eat one brassica you will not be able to eat the others due to the pesticide used on them.It is the pesticide which gives you the problem. Broccolli contains an essential mineral Manganese and I also read that, when tested, non-organic broccollii had no manganese in it, destroyed by the pesticide. I would also want to check out who funded the research to prove organic was a rip-off without benefits.Years ago a dental organisation said sugar wasn’t that bad for teeth! A reporter asks who funded the research reply “Sugar company” but denied that influenced the outcome.Taught me to always query the source. I proved the quality of taste by giving my family organic potatoes,without their knowledge, they commented immediately how lovely they were.Also it is not always more expensive, I have actually found odd things cheaper, a crispbread by the same manufacturers on the shelf side by side, the organic one was 50p cheaper.It’s worth the extra if you can pay it, just don’t eat so much! Don’t assume it is going to be more expensive either. I have no connection with the food industry or farming, just an old lady whose raised healthy children.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Plants including brocoli need manganese to grow. It is required for various purposes including photosynthesis. Elements cannot be destroyed. Please don’t believe everything you read, Phil.

Profile photo of mose
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Just goes to show how much profit is made! Organic production, by it’s very nature should be more expensive as the yield will be lower and land costs money.

Profile photo of loonywood
Member

Thanks for that. You learn something new every day. How sad that opposing elements don’t tell the truth just to prove their case. I’d have more respect for them if they were a little less positive and said they were not sure,but the adamant thing is… sad. Ho hum way of the world.

Profile photo of richard
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I repeat – I don’t support or eat organic because it is good or bad for mankind – but because it is far better for insects birds and wild animals. As an avid entomologist I am appalled at the rapid recent destruction of our natural environment by modern farming – whether it is by intensive farming or insecticides or pesticides..

Profile photo of mose
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Thing is, how do we feed 7 billion people? By all having an allotment?

Profile photo of wavechange
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Organic non-intensive farming uses a lot more land, so less land is available for wildlife. It is difficult to know what to do for the best. Not everyone can afford or wants to pay the premium price for organic products.

Member

If we encourage thirds world countries to use man made fertilisers, pesticides and GM crops, how are they going to be able to sustain this for themselves? All these non-organic means of farming come at a price that they will have to pay.

Secondly, I grow and buy organic food, because I don’t believe that pesticides will do me, my family or the environment any good. When I see evidence that pestacides are good for health and for the environment, I’ll be more keen to give up organic food.

The most traditional means of growing foods must be organic, as this was the method used before non-organic fertilisers and pestacides.We should not look to prove that organic food is superior, but that non-organic food is!

Profile photo of wavechange
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We can try to waste less food and most of us in the UK could benefit from eating less, but how do we produce enough food for everyone using organic farming, which requires more land to produce the same amount of food?

Pesticides are not good for the environment but neither is ploughing up the countryside for agriculture. Those promoting organic food need to accept this.

Hopefully we will see more use of biological control and less use of chemical pesticides. We also need to see more people doing what you do and using their gardens to produce food.

We need to deal with the problem of population growth, like China has done.